Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Lucifer: Hallowe'en Party (1969), by Agatha Christie

"How art thou fallen from Heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!...For thou has said in thine heart, I will ascend into Heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God...."--Isaiah 14:12-13 (Bible, KJV)

bobbing for apples in 1969
I think Agatha Christie's Halloween Party--I'm going to drop the apostrophe for ease--a seriously underrated book.  As Christie aged in the 1960s her mystery plots became less tidy and Halloween Party is no exception in this regard, though it's a masterpiece of construction compared with By the Pricking of My Thumbs or Postern of Fate. (Sorry Tommy and Tuppence fans!)

However Christie compensated for this flaw, in her best books of the period, by writing interesting crime novels, where she elevated suspense (The Pale Horse, Endless Night), setting (At Bertram's Hotel), or theme (Hotel, Night, Halloween Party, Nemesis).  As pure detective novels, probably none of her books from the Sixties bear comparison with her best detective novels from previous years, but as crime novels some of them have plenty of good features.  

As in other late Christies, Halloween Party has a great opening setup, followed by chapters of considerable verbosity which slow down the narrative.  Verily, Christie is not the first mystery writer to be undermined by late in life use of a Dictaphone.

Almost all of the book takes place in a commuter town in the greater London area, Woodleigh Common.  It opens at Apple Trees, the home of a domineering middle-aged widow, Rowena Drake, who is holding, yes, a Halloween party for neighborhood adolescents.  There are activities and games like a broom decorating contest, an event where the girls hold up mirrors to see their future husbands, snapdragon (you try to snatch burning raisins and almonds) and, of course, bobbing for apples.

I have never done any of these things, though as a kid I did see neighborhood girls play Milton Bradley's Mystery Date, which is kind of the same thing as the mirror husband bit, I suppose.  I remember seeing the commercial for that game below too, or one very like it.  "Open the door...for your...Mystery Date."

My Mom always warned me off bobbing for apples, which she said was incredibly unsanitary.  In the case of poor 13-year-old Joyce Reynolds in Halloween Party, bobbing for apples is literally fatal, because she is drowned at the party when someone lures her into the library and dunks her head into the galvanized iron apple bucket until she expires. 

Come to think of it, this book could have been called Another Body in the Library.  I shouldn't joke, as it really is a rather macabre and terrible murder.  However, Christie in her own unsentimental way keeps telling us what a horrible child Joyce is.  I don't believe Christie ever got really worked up about her child murders, except in the general sense that murder is inherently evil.  That she did get worked up about.  

Or maybe think again....

So, how did someone come to drown Joyce in an apple bucket?  Well, Joyce did boastfully announce at the party, not long before her death: "I saw a murder once."   It's a brilliant stroke of Christie's just to have Joyce suddenly blurt this out in the hubbub of general conversation.  

Her boast was made, apparently, to impress Ariadne Oliver, mystery writer and Christie alter ego, who happens to be at the party, she being a friend of lovely Judith Butler, another handsome local widow, and her daughter Miranda, a sweet and charming girl unlike that stinker Joyce.  This novel being rich in classical allusion, Judith gets compared to Undine, a water nymph, and Miranda to a wood dryad.  

Everyone seems to think that naughty Joyce was lying (she has a history, like the boy who cried wolf)-- but what if she told the truth and the murderer had an accomplice, say, at the party?  There would have been a reason, then, to have gotten rid of Joyce as fast as possible. (Joyce claimed she hadn't realized the killing was a murder at the time, this having taken place a few years earlier, when she was "just a child.")

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A distraught Mrs. Oliver--she insists that she'll never eat apples again (and, indeed she switches over to dates)--calls upon her pal Hercule Poirot in London to get him to investigate the matter.  So off Poirot goes to Woodleigh Common.  After a visit to another old pal, Inspector Spence (from Mrs. McGinty's Dead, seventeen years earlier), who, now retired, lives in Woodleigh Common with his sister Elspeth, Poirot goes on the hunt for Joyce's killer.  

Poirot's investigation consists mainly of him walking around from house to house in his painful patent leather shoes, interviewing people in an attempt to find out just what murder it was that Joyce might have seen.  Among his most important interviewees are 

Miss Emlyn, headmistress of The Elms, a local girls school, who is, incidentally, a friend of Miss Bulstrode, headmistress of Meadowbank from Cat among the Pigeons (1959), now retired

Miss Whittaker, a teacher at The Elms, who saw something at the Halloween Party

Judith Butler and Miranda, mentioned above

the late Joyce's mother and her elder sister, Ann, and her younger brother, Leopold, the latter two of whom are remarkably unconcerned about their sibling's death and the former of whom is mostly just whiny, to quote from my Pocket pb edition's cast of characters

Mrs. Goodbody, the local witch, who likes to quote nursery rhymes

Nicholas Ransom and Desmond Holland, local teenage boys who are adept at photography

and Michael Garfield, a beautiful landscape architect who fashioned a beautiful garden out of a local quarry for Rowena Drake's late aunt

I read Halloween Party originally when I was about twelve, less than a decade after it was originally published, and I quite enjoyed it as I recollect.  Halloween was always a holiday I loved and of course some of the kids in the book were around my age at the time: stinkeroo Joyce, 13, winsome Miranda, 12, and Leopold, 10.  Christie's depiction of children and teenagers is on the whole quite credible, I think, and especially impressive given the late date of the book. 

Once again she seems relatively sympathetic to Sixties boys, intrigued with their colorful clothes and profusion of curling hair.  What about teenage girls?  Christie still seems down on them.  Ariadne Oliver pronounces, "I can't help thinking...that girls are very silly nowadays," to which Rowena Drake responds: "Don't you think they always were?"  Mrs. Oliver considers and replies: "I suppose you're right."  

such colorful lads

There's one passage where Nicky and Desmond, trying to be with it and up-to-date, reference ESP.  I thought Christie herself might have been alluding The Amazing Kreskin, an American psychic entertainer who I was surprised to see is still alive.  However, I see he only became big in the Seventies, and they may not have heard of him in the UK anyway.  Perhaps she was alluding to Margery Allingham's thriller The Mind Readers (1965), published four years earlier.  

The boys also knowingly suggest that two local school teachers (one of them murdered) might have been lesbians.  I think they were probably right about that.  

Reading Halloween Party always reminds me that Christie overlapped writing eras with such prominent Silver Age crime writers as PD James, Ruth Rendell, Catherine Aird and Patricia Moyes, only one of whom is still around with us today.  There's a lot about Halloween Party that could actually have appeared in a Ruth Rendell mystery, for example.  

Indeed, the resemblance to A Guilty Thing Surprised, which Rendell published the next year, is not insignificant.  Gardens feature prominently in that one too and an au pair girl plays a big role.  (There's a vanished au pair girl in Halloween Party.)  If anything Christie's novel is more up to date that Rendell's.

Halloween Party is, to be sure, rambling and discursive, like all late Christie.  You might get tired of all the people complaining about youth crime and hooliganism, though I guess it will be surprising news to the end-of-times MAGA ignoramuses that this is not a new phenomenon.  

There's a chapter that feels utterly superfluous (an interview between Poirot and the local doctor, who is an irrelevant character to the story) and sometimes Christie contradicts herself or forgets in what order she told us something.  In Poirot's elucidation at the end, for example, he says he interviewed Mrs. Goodbody after he talked to Miranda about a certain point, when in the text as it's presented to us it's the other way around.  However, embedded within the text is a pretty good mystery, actually, one which draws significantly on a good Christie short story from the 1930s, like Endless Night drew on an older Miss Marple short story.  

The major red herring is not presented forcefully enough, so detractors have complained that the mystery is too easy to figure out; yet it's an interesting plot to follow.  There's also a powerfully presented, indeed mythic, depiction of true evil in this tale.  

Halloween as a theme may be largely dropped after the opening chapters, but there is much about the murder that is Satanic, you might say, and one would do well not to forget the role an apple played in the the flight from Eden.  

Rereading this one, I realized how much I truly enjoy it and I am updating my rating of it.  I don't believe the recent Kenneth Branagh film, A Haunting in Venice, really had much to do with Halloween Party as claimed (correct me if I'm wrong), but the David Suchet adaptation from to 2010 was pretty good and is recommended, though it predictably was backset to the 1930s.  

Just once I would like to see the Poirot of the Sixties presented on film.  He's a older, lonelier figure, rather like Miss Marple, less given to colorful "foreign" behavior, whom the younger police have largely forgotten.  They are afraid, indeed, that he might me senile, or "gaga" as they say.

When the Belgian detective first appears he is spending the night alone in London with his manservant George somewhere about in the flat, his friend Solomon Levy having canceled an evening visit on account of a  cold.  But then Mrs. Oliver shows up with another murder for him to solve.  

Christie's fictional alter ego appeared in all the Poirot mysteries between 1956 and 1972, with the exception of Cat among the Pigeons and The Clocks, where Poirot's role is pretty reduced.  As ever, she makes an enjoyable companion in crime fighting.  (Dead Man's Folly is referenced in the book as well.)

Ann Reynolds, something of a know-all, mentions having read Oliver's mystery The Dying Goldfish, though I think she (and the author) is thinking of The Affair of the Second Goldfish, mentioned way back in two earlier Poirot detective novels.  

There is one really fine, insightful twist in Halloween Party, I thought, concerning just what it was Joyce really saw.  There's another murder in the present too, which may have been a bit too much of a bad thing.  (My Mom thought so when she read it.)  However, the denouement is dramatic and effective and foreshadowed far earlier in the book, for those who think of Halloween Party as just some sort of hot, hellish mess.  I wish all late Christie were as "bad" as Halloween Party.  Give the Devil his due.


  1. I always found/find the killer and motivations in Halloween Party to be so very chilling/creepy. I enjoy parts of the book, but it isn't the comfortable read that some other Christie novels are for me.

    But I certainly feel that the so called "adaption" set in Venice should not claim any relationship to this novel.

    1. I haven't seen it but it sounds very different, outside of their being a Halloween party.

      A lot of late Christie seems pretty dark to me, with a melancholy autumnal tone to it.

    2. Poirot's head is held down in a bucket of water at one point. Ariadne Oliver is around, but not really herself. Don't know why the book had to be mentioned at all, couldn't the film just have been called a "new adventure" of Poirot?

    3. I know, there's nothing wrong, per se, with doing a continuation.